Professor Robert N. Stavins teaches environmental economics at Harvard University, and is one of the scientists responsible for crafting the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). His focus was on the International Cooperation chapter, one of the trickiest facets of climate change, and he recently published a letter he wrote to some of the IPCC higher-ups criticizing the process by which the IPCC translated its 2,000+ page report into a much more manageable, 33-page Summary for Policymakers (SPM).To condense that amount of information, a lot of details inevitably had to be glossed over, but the process was needlessly politicized, Stavins argues. Government representatives were tasked with unanimously approving the text, and the science was mangled for the sake of strategic political interests. Here are some of the juicier excerpts from his letter:
The general motivations for government revisions – from most (but not all) participating delegations – appeared to be quite clear in the plenary sessions. These motivations were made explicit in the “contact groups,” which met behind closed doors in small groups with the lead authors on particularly challenging sections of the SPM. In these contact groups, government representatives worked to suppress text that might jeopardize their negotiating stances in international negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).I fully understand that the government representatives were seeking to meet their own responsibilities toward their respective governments by upholding their countries’ interests, but in some cases this turned out to be problematic for the scientific integrity of the IPCC Summary for Policymakers. […][I]n the case of the IPCC’s review of research findings on international cooperation, there may be an inescapable conflict between scientific integrity and political credibility. If the IPCC is to continue to survey scholarship on international cooperation in future assessment reports, it should not put country representatives in the uncomfortable and fundamentally untenable position of reviewing text in order to give it their unanimous approval.
This goes to show just how difficult the Global Climate Treaty (GCT) task really is. The responsibilities for climate change are as vague and unevenly distributed as the impending dangers we’re told we face. Understanding our climate—maybe the most complicated system we have available for study—is a tall order in itself. Translating that understanding into an international strategy, encompassing the provincial interests of every national government, is nearly impossible.Stavins’ frustration is understandable, but as he says, on the issue of climate change, there looks to be an “inescapable conflict” between the underlying science and the self-interested political motivations governments bring to the table. If we’re to address the risks of climate change, it looks like we’re much better off taking steps at the national level. Pursuing a GCT is a waste of time, energy, and social capital.